A week ago China announced that it had stationed a garrison in Yangxing Island. Simultaneously, it also established the city of Sansha on the same island to govern its disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Many analysts agree that China’s actions are symbolically important. China was sending a political message to its neighbors, stressing its seriousness in defending its claims over the region. But the new deployment has only a minimal military value, as any serious military action would still be mounted from bases in Hainan.
China’s message, however, compounded by the recent botched Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Phnom Penh, raised the tension in the dispute concerning the ownership of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
At the same time, Japan is feeling picked on because China is intruding on its territorial waters in a dispute over the Senkaku Islands.
It seems hard to believe that China would knowingly pick a simultaneous fight with its neighbors. But this is an unintended result of its one-party system.
In the past few years, China’s internal cohesion has grown weaker, with social protests erupting more often than before. Many of the protests were directly caused by the irresponsible behavior of officials or their relatives, such as the infamous “My Father Is Li Gang” scandal, where a drunk driver, after striking two university students, leaving one dead, tried to shirk his responsibility by invoking the name of his father, who happened to be deputy chief of police of that region.
Other protests were caused by growing social injustice and inequality, exacerbated by abuse of power and growing corruption within the bureaucracy. Land seizure protests have rocked China quite often lately. In Wukan, the local population famously managed to kick out the local corrupt communist party officials and forced the central government to concede to the villagers’ demands.
Moreover, as the country becomes more and more prosperous, people are demanding more from the government, including better environmental protection. This leads to violent clashes against the police by people protesting the planned expansion of polluting industries. There were recent protests against the planned metal plant in Shifang and the planned construction of a pipeline intended to dump wastewater from a paper mill into the sea in Qidong.
China will undergo a change in leadership within the next year, where president Hu Jintao is likely to be replaced by Xi Jinping.
During this transition, with the Chinese Communist Party’s reputation already suffering, the last thing China needs is to have nationalists rising up and protesting what they perceive as China’s weak handling of its disputed territories.
Thus, China’s one-party system has turned out to be its own biggest weakness. Lacking a democratic system with a check-and-balance system, where officials’ behavior can be checked by a strong judiciary and legislative system, and where ordinary people can vent through the free press and be afforded an honest election, the bucks stops with the party.
With the party’s credibility at stake, it could not show weaknesses. In domestic affairs, the party has to keep cracking down on protests — often violently, closing down offensive Weibo accounts, and censoring anything that has the potential to be politically offensive on the Internet, even though such crackdowns will further undermine the party’s credibility in a long run. In international affairs, China has no option but to take a hard line, even if the action is detrimental to the nation’s long-term strategic interests.
China’s current condition is eerily similar to the last days of President Suharto in 1998. At that time, the economic crisis had badly undermined the regime. Coupled by years of corruption and abuse of power among the cronies of the president, the government had no choice but to keep cracking down on its critics and take a belligerent stance, especially in regards to East Timor. By the end, however, the proverbial dam broke, the political elite split and took action that further undermined the regime until it finally collapsed.
Granted, China’s current condition is much better than Indonesia’s at the end of Suharto’s New Order. It still has the power to maintain the current political environment for years to come.
At the same time, however, China needs to understand that it has no option but to engage in more political reform and strengthen the rule of law. It has to prepare itself for the inevitable transition to democratic rule.
Internationally, China’s failure to reform could lead to further regional instability and armed conflict with its neighbors.
That would inevitably get the US involved. Domestically, China might experience Indonesia’s growing pains, like internal violent conflicts, religious intolerance, broken rule of law, massive corruption, and uncontrolled vigilante mobs. The stakes are very high indeed.
Yohanes Sulaiman is a lecturer at the Indonesian Defense University (Unhan).